25-under-25: LaMelo Ball at No. 12

25-under-25, Charlotte Hornets

LaMelo Ball has endless talent, creativity and imagination. What can he do for the Charlotte Hornets now that he has experience too?

In a May contest against the moribund Pistons, LaMelo Ball did one of the coolest things anyone has done on the basketball court in a long time.

Detroit turned the ball over and P.J. Washington retrieved it near the basket before passing it to Ball. In his first game back after missing 21 games due to a wrist injury, Ball took a single dribble before swinging his right arm back like a pendulum. His palm turned inward, gripping the ball just strong enough to keep it from flying backward into the home crowd. He then brought his arm forward, sending the ball at least 50 feet in front of him as it flew over all five Pistons defenders, each looking up to track the ball’s path, helpless to stop its journey into Miles Bridges’ hands.

Bridges caught the ball underneath the rim and lay it in. The broadcast cut to Ball who appeared somehow unimpressed even though he just did something that no one had been brave enough to try since Pete Maravich. Maybe no one else saw the opportunity. More likely is that no one else would have thought to try.

LaMelo Ball brings creativity and imagination to the Charlotte Hornets

You can’t teach court vision. Players can prioritize passing and playmaking more, but the ability to foresee lanes before they open, knowing just the opportune moment to thread the ball between a mass of moving bodies, that’s something you either have or you don’t. LaMelo has it.

Upon grabbing a defensive rebound and looking downcourt, he must take in the same raw data that you and I would if we were in his situation: opponents running back on defense, teammates trying to break free for a potential fast break. The difference is that he, thanks to his inherent ability to see gaps in the defense — both actual and theoretical — processes and understands it differently from almost anyone else. There are only a handful of players like this in the league at any given time, which makes this gift so wondrous to witness. It can be honed, but not learned wholesale.

It made sense to harbor a bit of skepticism about LaMelo when he entered the league. Yes, he could pass, but could he do more? It was hard to determine just how good he was since he did not follow the traditional route of most young NBA prospects. Instead of playing at American high schools and then going to college, he went pro and played in Lithuanian and Australian leagues. It was strange and hard to tell how much of it was actually in his best interest and how much of it was due to his father taking unexpected paths for publicity’s sake.

Nascent signs of promise were there, but it felt presumptuous to make too much of them. His shooting form was unorthodox (to be charitable) and his percentages were abysmal, which led some to wonder if he was just an extravagantly hyped Ricky Rubio. Already, he’s turned into much more than that.

LaMelo was unable to do much to change the Hornets’ on-court fortunes last year. While they did win ten more games than the year before and made it to the first play-in game, the team still has a long way to go before they reach genuine respectability. But who cares about that when you can be fun? And LaMelo did make the Hornets more fun than they have been in a very long time. For the first time I can recall, I was seeking out Charlotte Hornets games on League Pass and watching Hornets highlights just to see what cool stuff LaMelo did that night. It was like every other player on the team became more exciting by osmosis. They were a delight.

Charlotte has not had much to celebrate in the years since the original Hornets left and the Bobcats were incorporated in their place. In 17 seasons, these Hornets have made the playoffs three times and won zero playoff series. In that same span, only two players (Gerald Wallace and Kemba Walker) have been named to All-Star teams.

Except for the disastrous 7-59 season, they’ve rarely been awful and have never finished last in their division apart from that year. Instead, they’ve just been irrelevant, a team that people just seem to forget about. LaMelo may not be a franchise player, but the Hornets don’t need him to be. After such an extended desolate period, for the team to merely be fun, to be competitive, will feel like a wonderful success. By the virtue of his vision and virtuosity, Ball has already invigorated the Hornets more than anything else in recent history.

Analysts will often say that a young athlete plays older than they are. It’s meant as a compliment, to convey that they avoid common mistakes and errors that are commonly made by players in the early stages of their career. Part of what makes LaMelo Ball so fun to watch is that he does not play like this. Instead, he plays like someone who still watches his own highlights after the game, giggling at his own audacity and the things he pulled off that night. He has yet to display the prudence required by so many coaches, a sense of caution that would have kept many of his most dynamic plays from happening. There’s so much liveliness in that, such irrepressible joy and delight. I hope he never loses it.

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